Paris RoubaixWell, where do we start. I've been waiting for this for two years, as the last event was run right in the middle of my Golden Bike Campaign.
I've also managed to convince, not that it took much, Dave Whitt and Steve Goaziou to join me for an expected trip of a lifetime.
Like expectant children at Christmas, we weren't disappointed.
If you think this story is a bit long you should hear about all the stuff I've left out. One day I'll probably bore you with it all. Just don't ask me if you see me out on the bike.
Death Race Wannabe's?
After a night in St Malo we trekked north across France and went for a trip around the Paris ring road. Where we got to watch our very own version of Death Race 2000, or for our younger readers The Fast & The Furious, French-style.
A Renault Espace and a Peugeot were giving it what for across four lanes of motorway for about three kilometres until the Espace forced the Peugeot off the road and down a slip road. No one seemed to bat an eyelid! We were just glad they were behind us
That afternoon, after a short saunter for some food and tracking down our numbers, (which is another story) we went off to find the first section of pavé.
It's really strange, because the cobbles don't actually look that bad when standing on them. So it's really hard to tell how they'll feel when on a bike. Anyway, we now knew were they were and would find out for sure in the morning.
ready for the off in the the early morning sun
When morning came, we headed for the start at Bohain. I built the bikes, Dave and Steve went to get the numbers and Dianne went to powder her nose.
She came back with it very much un-powdered and a brief explanation of a squat-and-hope, hole in the floor toilet, that us Brits just can't bring ourselves to use! Especially when a few hundred cyclists have been there before.
Anyway the boys returned and we fixed our numbers to our bikes. I'm not saying we booked our places early but I was number 10 and Dave was in single digits; number NINE!
We have 190 kilometres, 27 sections of pavé to tackle and it's getting hot. So all numbered up, lets crack on.
The First Secteur
9:00 am, fuelled up and ready to go, it's already 28 degrees. We leave for our big adventure and a 13K ride to the first set of cobbles. Dianne leaves, looking for a facility.
Pavé 27, the 2200m, category 3 cobbles of Troisville, were to be the first section of the day. We new exactly where they were, and as we'd checked them out the night before, what to expect.
The beginning of each section of cobbles is clearly marked with a nice little sign with the pavé countdown number and the distance to be covered. Except this one, the evening before I decided to place it in our van for safekeeping.
The route direction just can't be missed and someone else was only going to take it anyway. We never saw another one all day! Sometimes I just can't suppress my natural scouse instincts.Nothing but nothing can prepare you for the assault on the senses that are the Roubaix Cobbles.
Not even Flanders.
They are much bigger, more irregular, have larger gaps and are just plain nastier than any cobbles you've ever seen before.
It's like a fairground ride, but one you can fall off.
Dave (on the right in blue) had sampled cobbles in Flanders but for Steve, our local St Aubin High Street was his only reference.
The only way to hit them is hard and fast and in a big gear. Then it's hang on for dear life, thread your way through the less committed, and hope your stamina can keep up the required speed until the end.
After a kilometre of downhill cobbles you come to a junction and a main road. You cross it, get 10 metres respite, then it all starts again. Five hundred metres in to the section there's a 90 degree left turn.
Which was interesting.
You have to keep your speed up to maintain balance but you have to brake to get round the corner and you can't slow down if the wheels aren't in contact with the ground. How exciting is that? We all survive and make it out the other side.
As we get spat out of the end, all shaken not stirred, we discuss the various merits of "hand on bar position," gearing and how to avoid big holes. With a 5K ride to the next section it was a short discussion. The 1800m, Pavé de Viesly comes up on you a bit sharpish, but not as sharp as the next two.
There's just one kilometre from the end of Visely before you hit the 3700 metre Pavé de Quievy, cross a main road then hit another 1500 metres at St Python. From leaving Troisville we've covered 14 kilometres, of which nine have been cobbled!
The first carnet station is already upon us. If you want to qualify for your piece of pavé at the end you have to have a fully stamped carnet. We'd need six stamps and Solesmes was our first stop.
Already I'd lost my saddle bag and had to stop to retrieve it. There were so many bottles lying around you could have made a fortune just setting up a "Maison du Bidon" stall at the feed stations. We even saw a full bottle lying in the dirt with a bottle cage still wrapped around it! Hope it hadn't ripped out of someone's carbon frame.
Steve got his chain lubed and Dave made some handlebar and seat adjustments as his bars had dropped and his brake lever had moved in. It's a fine line between tight and loose on these rides.
Tighten the bolts too much and they'll snap under the load of a pot-hole or a fall; ask George Hincapie! Not tight enough and they'll work loose. Loose is better than snapped, you can do something with a loose bar.
We filled our bottles with some enigmatic, fluorescent, lime green, creme de menthe type drink, stuffed a few cakes down our throat (quite a few in Steve's case) and headed out to Section Twenty Three.
Four to the Big One
After the onslaught of the first four sections we now had another four to go before the Tranchee d'Arenberg. The mythical cobbles that stack up in notoriety against the Izoard, the Galibier, Alpe d'Huez and the Muur de Geradesbergen. Having ridden the last four it's now time to get the full set.
We didn't think Dianne would make it to the first stop before us, so we programmed the Tom Tom to take her straight to Raismes, the second carnet station.
Leaving Solesmes we hit the Pavé de Vertain and had our photo taken in full flight. It would be ready for us to pick up at the velodrome. As we passed through Artres there was a chemists with the old thermometer reading on it's sign. It's just past 10:30 and it was reading 35 degrees. It seemed hotter!
Things you don't see very often on a bike
Now I know it was hot and I know we were drinking some dodgy French Listermint concoction, but you don't expect to see a big, 90 kilo, dreadlocked, Rastafarian, riding his bike in the middle of the Paris Roubaix.
There was a large group of riders wearing London based kit ahead of us. As we came alongside I said to the Rasta "you don't get roads like this back home". "Nah" he said, "but the novelty's wearing off a bit now".
In a way I knew what he meant but there was an awful long way to go, and another 21 sections of torture to be tackled, to be psyched out this early. For him it was going to be a very long day.
Then, at one of the feed stations, we saw a bloke with one arm and one leg. Anyone who tackles this cyclo deserves some sort of respect as it's harder than you can ever imagine.
So how hard must it be when you're a double amputee? I've seen a one legged rider on the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and a one armed rider on the Pascal Richard but I doubt I'll ever be more impressed than I was at that feed station. I'll never complain about a hard ride ever again. Well I'll try not to.
How Nervous Are We?
As we arrive at Riasmes, with a massive chateau as a feed station we all look remarkably sprightly and as you can see here, all together.
We get our carnets stamped, grab some food and fill up our bottles. As this isn't a "race" there isn't the urgency of other cyclos.
This is an event to be endured and enjoyed. So we sit under a tree and discuss the things we've seen and done, the way only cyclists can, and how we plan to tackle the Arenberg.
Talk is cheap and it makes no difference what you plan. Until you see it and ride it there is little to prepare you for the road, and I use the word in its loosest sense, through the forest.
The Roubaix cobbles have gaps in them bigger than the actual cobbles in Flanders. In previous sections there were holes and dips bigger than your wheels. You really don't want to go near them. In Arenberg there are holes bigger than your bike!
As you enter the forest the road just disappears arrow-like ahead of you in to infinity and beyond. It's a truly awesome (in the real sense of the word) and intimidating sight.
Over its 2400 metres it rises just 6 metres but it looks worse than any mountain you've ever seen. It's rated category 5, it don't get any higher.
Steve went to the left, Dave the right, I decided to hit the crown and stay there until I died, fell off or got to the end. After numerous dodged bottles, and even more riders, I survived to tell the tale.
Steve was waiting at the end while Dave dived up and down the dirt path taking photo's. Which was just as dangerous as the cobbles. So he quickly got on them again.
We lived to fight another day. What an experience. No time for rest though, as once we pass through the Wallers section of just 1K we hit Hornaing, Warlaing and Tilloy.
The first one at 3700 metres and the next two at 2400. We reach the feed at Beuvry a little less sprightly than we did the previous one. We've been going for over three hours and we're just half way.
The feed is at the football stadium and a match is about to break out. We find some shade to eat our cakes and savoury sandwiches which are a God send after all the sweet stuff we've been drinking and eating.
It's now 40 degrees and the middle of the day. We leave the feed straight in to another section of pavé. A 100 metres in, there's a bike at the side of the field but not a rider to be seen. A load of Italians stop to check it out, we carry on.
Another seven adventure playgrounds pass us by in not-so-quick succession. Fatigue is beginning to set in. It's important to eat but even more important to drink. Especially in this heat.
On the cobbles there is no escape, they just reflect the heat up to your body like a giant heat reflecting machine. The harder it gets the more it becomes an adventure and something to tell the grandchildren. All in all we drunk over 18 pints of fluids, most of it green.
No More Talking
At Cysoing the temperature is 42 degrees. As we arrive there's someone at the feed station, not a cyclist, having a defibrillator fired up on them. We get out of the way to let the medics do their jobs. We sit at the car in the shade and just eat, drink and mentally prepare for the final section. Surely it can't get any hotter. There isn't a breath of wind.
Belly's full and spirits raised we leave the feed and ride 200 metres down the road to Pavé Duclos Lasalle.
For the last two years, on my wall in the lab, I've had a 1992 Mirroir Cyclisme poster of Gilbert D-L winning Paris Roubaix. Anyone who's been for a test has seen it, now you know why it's there.
Every climbing interval, training ride and turbo session since November has been for this day. Now we're riding "his" section of pavé and what a section it is.
It's got holes bigger than cars! You would not want to do this in the rain. If you do, NEVER ride through a puddle. Ever!
Luckily it's only 960 metres but it leads straight in to the next section. We get stuck behind a car as we pass over a railway crossing, and a bridge with no top on it, if you know what I mean. You'll see it on any classic photo of the race.
The car goes left and Steve follows it. I've watched so many videos of this race that I know where the road goes. I go right on to the pavé and steal a march on Steve while Dave's tucked in behind me. I get on the crown and give it everything. Then Steve appears and disappears just as quick. Every pedal stroke took him further away from us. It was impressive to watch.
We regroup on the road section and it all begins again. As we get to the end of the 1800 metre Pavé de la Justice I dive right to miss a pot hole and Steve dives left, we come back in the middle and bang in to one another.
Fifty four bloody kilometres of pavé and we both want the same one at the same time! We bounce off each other and try not to fall off laughing. We're too tired to swear at one another.
Crossroads of The Trees
Then we go straight in to the 2120 metre, infamous, Carrefour de l'Arbe. Steve's gone ahead and I get stuck behind a small group. The side drop offs and holes are too big to get off the crown and get round them in one go.
I have to wait for them to tire and split to pick them off one at a time. I get four of them then the front rider, in full-on Discovery kit and Trek bike, pulls to the left to ride the grass.
His front wheel stops dead and he's flicked, Hincapie like, over the bars. I turn to look, which isn't easy on cobbles, he jumps up and waves so I carry on.
We've just done 4000 metres of pavé non-stop. You pass the famous cafe and row of trees then come to the cross roads. Boonen's name is still painted everywhere, you turn right, pedal for ten revs, snatch a drink then turn left for another 1100 metres of masochistic agony.
Is this Hem straight?
The last real section is Hem. This is the bit on telly which has all the twists and turns in it. As you get near the end, it's really tempting to ride the grass verge at the side. Almost everyone is.
But I've not come this far and waited for two years, to ride on the grass. If I wimp out now I'll never forgive myself; especially on the last section. Determined to ride every metre of pavé, I crash over the cobbles while all around me are "grassing it".
As we get to the infamous 10K level crossing, Steve's somewhere up ahead so me and Dave call a truce until we get to the velodrome. Although Dave jumps a red light when he felt his leg cramp up with 2K to go, so I had to chase him down!
All the main roads in to Roubaix are manned by the Police who wave us through the final junctions and traffic lights on to the last 300m of ceremonial pavé. Expecting a Whitt special as we approach the finale I move ahead. He normally tells me a joke at the end of a race and when I laugh he attacks me!
How steep is this?
We turn off the pavé and head side by side in to the velodrome. Which is surprisingly bigger, cleaner and much, much steeper than I imagined. We do our lap and get our official photo sprinting in. It's been a long, long day.
Seven and a half hours for a "flat" 190K is a long. long time. But every kilometre of cobbles is like two of climbing. In climbing only your legs and maybe your back hurts. On cobbles, it's every fibre of your body.
Even on a bike as armchair comfortable as a C50 and with Campagnolo's velvet-glove controls to rest your hands on. It's been a long hot day and we're really happy with our ride. Which is how it should be.
Not one puncture, one fall or a mechanical all day./p>
We picked up our food and drinks, our Pavé Trophy, our photo and our trinkets and sat on the grass in the middle of the track in the now cooling sun.
Another tick in another box in my year of the classics and a ride to remember for Dave and Steve.
A fantastic ride, over fantastic roads, in fantastic company.
Then our old friend from L'Eroica turned up. Luciano! Riding his ancient, wooden wheeled, Bianchi; what a star. He gets his second photo of the year with Dianne and goes off for a lie down...
The Next Day
Evening dinner was an animated affair, with a celebratory desert and bottle of wine along with the obligatory post-event review.
Steve talked of coming back in two years to "race" the 250K, Dave talked of doing the Amstel Gold next year. I just babbled as usual, while Dianne did a lot of listening.
Next morning was breakfast with tired legs and aching muscles. Dave and Steve had massive blisters on their hands, even though they had double bar tape, where as mine didn't.
Told you boys, "get a Colnago and put Campag on it".
Shimano Dave even had to switch his electric toothbrush off and use it manually because his knuckles ached! How sad is that?
All that remained now was for a quick blast home in time for Steve to buy a tent at the Decathlon.
Yeh, his missus was impressed as well. Follow the links below to all the information you need to do the ride yourself in two years time.